Once the sole domain of Hollywood's major studios, next week's 78th Academy Awards will be dominated by the ''little films'' that far outnumber the usual multimillion-dollar blockbusters on the 2006 nominees' list.

Marty Grove, a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter online, said: "It's very unusual to see that four out of five of the best picture nominees are independent or low-budget films, whereas it used to be the other way round. 

"If they are not truly independently made, they are at least made by the independent divisions of big studios and stand out by their subject matter as well as low budgets," he told reporters.

Universal Studios' $75 million epic Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg, is the only exception, as all of the other contenders - Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck and Capote - were relatively cheap to make and were at least partly financed by private investors.

Brokeback Mountain

The favourite in this year's race, the provocative gay cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain, is armed with eight nominations including best picture, best director, and best actor and leads a pack of unusually thoughtful contenders.

Ang Lee's film, which stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, cost $14 million to make and was co-financed for Sony Independent Pictures by the co-owner of the Minnesota Twins baseball team in the US. 

"It's very unusual to see that four out of five of the best picture nominees are independent or low-budget films, whereas it used to be the other way round" 

Marty Grove,
Hollywood Reporter online

Director George Clooney's $7.5 million story of political repression and freedom of speech, Good Night and Good Luck, was co-financed by production firms owned by the Dallas Mavericks basketball team's owner and by Jeff Skoll, one of the founders of online auctioneer eBay.

Paul Haggis's imaginative and racially charged story Crash, which won six nominations, including best picture, best director and best supporting actor for Matt Dillon - was truly independent, with its $6.5 million cost financed by a real-estate mogul.

The Truman Capote story, Capote, which cost $7 million but won six nominations, including best picture, best actor for Philip Seymour Hoffman, best supporting actress for Catherine Keener and best director - was co-financed by independent Canadian production firm Infinity Media.

Small budget films

Other small-budget films also pepper the nominees' list, including Hustle and Flow, Syriana and Transamerica, the story of a transsexual played by best actress nominee Felicity Huffman, which cost just $1 million.

The big-budget offerings among the year's 10 most-nominated films include Sony's $85 million Memoirs of a Geisha, with six nominiations; Munich, with five; the $29 million Walk the Line, with five; and King Kong, which cost more than $200 million and won four nominations.

Grove, the columnist, said: "The award-giving bodies in Hollywood have multiplied and no longer celebrate the same things that they did a few years ago, and are now inclined to honour more serious films rather than epics."

In addition, many filmmakers and actors, such as Clooney, frustrated by movies being offered by the big studios, have formed their own companies and have the star power to win investments for sometimes risky pet projects.

Big audiences 

Actor Joaquin Phoenix is one of
six nominated for best actor

But while independent and low-budget films may rule the roost at Hollywood's many awards shows, it is still the big studios that are pulling in the big audiences.

The five best picture nominees have only notched up a combined total of around $190 million in ticket sales, compared with around $130 million taken by the top 10 studio movies at the US box office last weekend alone.

The slapstick comedy Big Momma's House 2 took $62 million in its first 10 days in release in North America in February, compared with Brokeback's $67 million in nearly three months on screens.

Leo Braudy, a pop culture expert at the University of Southern California, said: "The [Oscar contenders] have been well received by critics and are small-budget movies, but at the end of the day, they have not been seen by a large proportion of moviegoers." 

This year's Oscars will be handed out at a glittering ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre on 5 March.